There is an island on the Anegada Passage, right on the northeastern tip of the Caribbean atoll, little known and seldom visited, which once, however, bore the riches of a hardly prosperous community and which still today pays invaluable service to seafarers and pleasure cruisers alike. It goes by the name of Sombrero Island, and its story is made of the stuff that nurtures fantasies, that fosters legend and that calls, hard and loud, to be told.
Sitting primly over an otherwise unperturbed patch of ocean, Sombrero is hardly large – it spans just under a mile (1.5 km) in length and reaches as far as a quarter of a mile (400 meters) at its widest. It owes its name (hat, in Spanish) to its peculiar shape, perfectly flat on both ends and rising, hardly steeply, to some 40 feet above the sea level in its middle point, where the volcanic surface also bulges westward, creating a crown of sorts that is both higher and wider than the surrounding “brim”.
Ever so slightly tilted on the ocean bed, Sobrero’s coastline is dominated by limestone cliffs all round, which cut a straight line at a 30-degree angle on the eastern (windward) side of the island. Its most remarkable, and most noticeable, feature, however, is the lighthouse located near its center, which rises a good 100 feet into the skyline to steer maritime traffic away from the lethal Horseshoe Reef. These days, the lighthouse is automated, powered by solar energy and only occasionally visited, but up until the turn of the millennium a team of five Anguillian men were in charge of manning and operating the device through six-week-long shifts during which they were left on their own on Sombrero Island.
The Anegada Passage was the favored point of entry into Caribbean waters for ships trafficking between Europe and the Greater Antilles during the days of colonialism. But the strait that divides Sombrero from Anegada counts among the most treacherous portions of sea in the world, due to the largely invisible Horseshoe Reef – the biggest coral reef in the region and the fourth biggest in the world. Legend has it that during the heyday of pirate activity in the Caribbean, back in the XVII and the beginning of the XVIII centuries, privateers would lurk in the area, sending misguiding signals or diverting boats towards the reef in order to wreck and loot them.
At that time, Sombrero was nothing more than just a speck of land on the ocean, used at best as an orientation marker. It would not be until the XIX century, hundreds of wrecks into the list of victims claimed by Horseshoe Reef, that Sombrero would gain any relevance of its own. And once it did, it was, ironically, not for its convenient location, but for the resources that had been accumulated on the deserted island over centuries of untroubled existence. Still today, Sombrero Island is one of the most densely populated bird sanctuaries in the region, and back in the first quarter of the XIX century, before any activity was held on the island at all, the presence of birdlife must have been even more pronounced. Whether or not this played a role in attracting surveyors to the island, the fact remains that a high density of guano (phosphate of lime, naturally derived from bird excrement) was discovered in Sombrero Island as early as 1815.
In 1856, Sombrero was “claimed” by two merchants from Boston under the US Guano Act of the same year, which stipulated that any Americans who discovered guano in uninhabited islands could ask for government support, should third parties dispute or disturb their activities. According to published reports, in 1860 the island featured ample facilities, such as a railway that cut through the island from north to south, several quarries, a rudimentary loading bay and a settlement of over 200 West Indians, mostly from the British and Danish Virgin Islands but also from Anguilla, housed in wooden barracks and overseen by roughly a dozen white managers, including a superintendent by the name of Snow, whose excessively strict approach sparked a spontaneous revolt among the workers, which ultimately cost him his life and the Sombrero Company a few days of labor. Much more trouble lay ahead, however, as the British realized the size and significance of the operation, and actively sought to reclaim the rock from 1863 onwards.
Roughly at the same time, the initiative to build a lighthouse in Sombrero Island gathered pace, noticeably through the lobbying of the Royal Mail Steam Packet Company, after its steam liner, the Parmatta, was wrecked on her maiden voyage off the coast of Anegada in the summer of 1859. The plans were stalled by the dispute between the Sombrero Company and the British government, but once this was resolved in favor of the latter, in 1867, the erection of the lighthouse became a priority. By then, the British had already awarded the Sombrero Company the license to extract guano from the island for the following 21 years for a fee of £1,000 per year. But after shipping over 100,000 tons of guano from the island, the company ran into trouble and was liquidated in 1871.
That was the end of American involvement in Sombrero for over a century, as the enterprise was now picked up by a banker by the name of Emile Erlanger, who bought the 21-year license for £55,000 and established the New Sombrero Phosphate Company. The newly created company was listed on the stock market, with shareholders’ funds used to purchase, among other things, the lease that Erlanger had obtained for £55,000 – except he sold it to his own company for twice the amount. This led to a long landmark process in British company law that lasted until 1878, but the New Sombrero Phosphate Company continued its operations on the island, regardless, now blasting its way through the rock to reach the guano, often some 20 feet beneath sea level.
By the end of the 21-year lease, resources in Sombrero were so scarce and difficult to access that their extraction was no longer viable. It was the end of an unlikely enterprise, loaded with the sense of craftiness and adventure that defines the Caribbean. It was, however, far from the end of Sombrero, whose lighthouse remains a crucial beacon to this very day. Annexed to the Federal Colony of the Leeward Islands in 1904, Sombrero was paired with the Presidency of St. Kitts, Nevis and Anguilla when the new constitution of the Federation of the West Indies was drafted in 1956. The old lighthouse, though fitted with a new lighting system in 1931, badly needed replacing by the time hurricane Donna hit the area with devastating force in 1960. A new structure was erected in 1962, this time powered by kerosene, which remained in place until 2001, when the new, automated machine was set up.
Through the Anguillian revolt of 1967-69 and the ensuing political turmoil, Anguilla was always in charge of operating, supervising and manning the lighthouse, and therefore, it was only natural for the island to be awarded authority over the rock once the separation of Anguilla from St. Kitts and Nevis was formalized. Seemingly innocuous as this detail might seem, it has provided Anguilla with vast and rich fishing waters – an invaluable asset for a small insular dependency.
Thus, Sombrero lived in total remoteness, inhabited only by five Anguillians, through most of the XX century. Which ought to have been happily ever after, had it not been for Beal Aerospace. One of the providers for NASA during the late 1990s, Beal specialized in the development of launch vehicles (i. e. rockets), and in 1997 it devised an audacious plan, which resonated dangerously with the sort of farfetched fancy pertinent, for instance, to a guano quarry in the middle of the ocean: Beal proposed to use Sombrero Island as the exclusive launching site of the BA-2 vehicle. For this purpose, it signed an agreement with the Government of Anguilla in December 1997 for the lease of the island for the following 98 years. Alas, huge environmental concerns allied themselves with NASA’s decision to fund new independent space launch initiatives, sending Beal into insolvency in 1999. Fortune had smiled on Sombrero once again. Two years later, the final lighthouse keepers would also evacuate the island, leaving Sombrero to the exclusive use of birds and fish, as it was in the beginning. May it remain so for a long time to come.
PUBLISHED BY ST. MAARTEN’S CARIBBEAN BEACH NEWS, VOL. 1, ISSUE 4 (JUNE, 2012).